What is Indispensable?

There was a time (and maybe even still today) when well-meaning facilitators would ask a group to imagine themselves in a life boat, now required to throw some somebodys overboard to save the rest. The game was supposed to be an exercise in applied ethics, the outcome of which was apparently to teach that ethics are relative, though to what end I don’t know. I played a few times, but never heard the facilitators say exactly what the point was. Maybe they didn’t know. I, on the other hand, never saw it as anything but a way to reveal our prejudices: babies are more valuable than old folks, sick whites are less disposable than healthy blacks, uniformed cops chaff compared to movie stars. Once those hard choices were made, the facilitators would declare even more people had to go, until you were left just trying to save the passengers most like yourselves.

Faulkner said it: “…that point where man looks about at his companions in disaster and thinks When will I stop trying to save them and save only myself?”


Luckily, we will never find ourselves in such a situation. It’s not even fun to think about. But here’s one I do think about a lot, even though it also will never happen: if I were banished to a desert island and could take only five books, what would they be?

It’s so unreasonable. How about five novels, five poetry collections, and five books of plays? That would be easier.
Not for everybody, of course. I can already hear the calls for books of history and biography and criticism. Criticism? Somebody wants to take Surprised by Sin? Sure, okay. But I know how the game works. I pick my five novels, etc. and then I’m asked to sacrifice a number of them. My list will be reduced to just five books eventually. So why not start there?

I think I began this game when I got my first copy of Gravity’s Rainbow. I found it on the giveaway rack in the U.S. Army library on Coleman Kaserne in Mannheim, Germany. It was that gold-colored Bantam paperback. On the first page of reviews, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing about it in The New York Times, declares, “If I were banished to the moon tomorrow and could take only five books along, this would have to be one of them.”

I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree. Gravity’s Rainbow is definitely the desert island book of books. I’ve read it four times. One time through, I read every entry in the Weisenburger Companion as I went. I don’t think I’ve yet exhausted my enjoyment of that book. It makes the list.

So what else?

Well, Absalom, Absalom. I love Faulkner. I’m trying to think of a book of his I don’t love (Soldier’s Pay?). Once I read Sartoris and Flags in the Dust simultaneously to see what his editors thought needed excising. What kind of a nut does that? There are no words for my love of Light in August. But Absalom is something else. I think it encompasses everything wonderful about Faulkner: the voice, God, the voice. The shifting points of view and loci of truth, refusing to privilege one version over the others. The South, the war, the cultural collapse. The omnipresence of the past. Yes, Absalom is coming along too.

I’m taking Yeats. Volume One of the Collected Works: The Poems. I can’t defend this choice. Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

I’m taking the Harrison edition of the Shakespeare Complete Works. That counts, right? It’s just one book.

And, what? Fifth book. What’s it going to be?

The Dream Songs? The Maximus Poems? It needs to be a hefty one. Forever is a long time on a desert island. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor? How can I not take that? Blood Meridian? Maybe an anthology? Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry? That’s a really good book. Could I rubberband together Updike’s Bech: A Book and Bech is Back? They really do tell just one story over the course of two books. Can’t that count as one? Please.

I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it some more. If time runs out, I’ll take Light in August. Can’t go wrong with that.

And when my internal facilitator says, Okay, now. You can take only one book? What then?

1 Comment

Filed under writing

One response to “What is Indispensable?

  1. Only one book! I’m guessing there’s no power on the desert island, so my kindle doesn’t count. Perhaps I’ll take a blank book, lots of good pencils, and good erasers. Then I’ll settle down to an infinite number of dreams.

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